Friday, April 16, 2010

When do you need a product strategy?

By Mark Helfen


When your tiny technology startup is scrambling to get its first product out the door, or struggling to make its quarterly numbers, or responding to an unexpected sales opportunity, why should you take time away from such critical problems to develop a long term strategy?

Last Monday's SDForum Marketing SIG addressed this question, along with suggestions to get strategy development off the ground. The answer, according to Rich Mironov, is that having a strategy may save your company from a "post course correction."

Mironov is a principal at Mironov Consulting, where he helps early stage startups with their product management, and agile development. He is on the board of SVPMA, and writes the Product Bytes blog. He is also the author of The Art of Product Management.

Having a written strategy, and process to keep it updated, can save your budding business from problems, including what Mironov refers to as a "post course correction" - figuring out what really works in the market after all of the money is used up. He uses the analogy of the NASA moon landing, where a mid-course correction was planned. A change of direction early in the process is much easier than waiting. Of course, if you wait too long - the post course correction - it's too late.

Without a written strategy, companies respond to the "latest and loudest" problem - a new sales opportunity, or an interesting idea. While these may be valuable, the business needs to stop, compare, and validate ideas to make sure they will be successful the only place they matter - with customers that will pay for the result enough times to make the business prosper. Frequent changes can cause the business to thrash, wasting time, money, and market opportunity.

While the need for a strategy may be clear, the process of getting it started can be hard. For one thing, no single part of the company can own the result. The businesses strategy needs to involve all of the company's functions, and everyone needs to buy in. At an early stage, there may not yet be a person with the title "product manager" to run the process.

To at least get started, Mironov described the steps for a "barely sufficient" product strategy, taking from 4 to 8 hours:

  • Get a handful of key contributors together
  • Discuss and write down assumptions about your products, target markets, delivery dates, and how customer will use your product
  • Repeat monthly for a startup company, or quarterly for a product line in a larger business.

The idea is that strategy development isn't a one-time event, but an ongoing and evolving process.

The next step after getting your strategy on paper is to validate it where it counts - with people who have the money to actually buy what you plan to sell. This doesn't happen in your office, but out in front of potential customers. Mironov recommends that you ask your customers or prospects open ended questions, listen carefully, and take good notes. Don't form any conclusions until you see a clear pattern develop, usually after more than 8 interviews. When you report back to the company, the data in your notes will help support your conclusions.

Who the "you" is who does this work is one of the difficulties. When a company is tiny, it's probably the technical or marketing founder. Mironov recommends that a full time product manager get hired before the company reaches 25 people.

That product manager can now make the strategy development process run, keeping all parts of the company in the loop. The job of revisiting the business or product strategy never ends.

You can see a detailed presentation of Rich Mironov's presentation here at the SDForum Marketing SIG web site.


Mark Helfen is a freelance writer, journalist, and marketing consultant. He can be reached at:



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